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Mayor, APD defend officer, say underwear not enough to warrant crime investigation

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque Police Department has reviewed officers’ interactions with the 7-year-old girl who the Attorney General’s Office says was trafficked by her relatives — including an instance where an officer tossed out her blood-stained underwear — and found that no one violated any policies or procedures.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Everyone involved clearly never wants to see anything like this happen,” said Mayor Tim Keller Wednesday. “Based on information they had at the time we have no reason to believe protocol wasn’t followed and procedure wasn’t followed.”

He said the city is still looking at some of the details and reviewing potential changes to policies.

APD chief Michael Geier said in a phone interview Wednesday that officers and detectives did everything they could with the information they had at the time. He repeatedly said that the blood-stained underwear by itself was not a strong enough reason to cause further investigation beyond what the officer did that day.

Still, Geier said he is looking at ways to learn from the interaction.

“We can always do things better,” Geier said. “So having new systems in place so that we don’t overlook things like this — or don’t get placed in the position where we can be second guessed and be viewed in terms of being negligent or remiss — we’ve got to look at those possibilities and say what are the lessons learned and how can we improve.”

Interim Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The police chief and mayor ordered a review of the interactions after the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General arrested Teri Sanchez and James Stewart, both 37, in early May for child abuse against the 7-year-old. Stewart is charged with human trafficking and promoting prostitution and Sanchez is charged with child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

APD, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and the Children, Youth and Families Department had all been called about the couple, the little girl, and her two siblings through the years but the children remained with the couple until earlier this month.

CYFD secretary Monique Jacobson announced that her department’s internal review of interactions with the family found several lapses in the way employees handled referrals. Four CYFD employees remain on leave pending the determination of final action.

The AG’s investigation into Stewart and Sanchez began in mid-April when an elementary school nurse reported to that office that she believed the girl was a sex trafficking victim.

In a court hearing Monday, school officials testified about the girl and her older brother, who they said frequently came to school unkempt and fell asleep in class. They said the family is homeless and one day the girl came to school with a dress, high heels, makeup and press-on nails.

A teacher also testified that she noticed blood on the crotch of the girl’s underwear last November and reported it to CYFD. She said when an APD officer was sent to talk with her, he said the underwear had not been kept in a secure location and could not be used as evidence so he threw it away in a dumpster.

Geier said two officers and then two detectives with the Crimes Against Children’s Unit had gone to the motel where the girls’ family was staying to interview her after APD received a report of the teacher’s concerns about the kids not showing up for school and about the soiled underwear. He said the teacher did not disclose any abuse at that time and no one had alleged a crime had occurred.

“There may have been a crime, we can’t discount that at all, but we can’t look at a crystal ball and find out what that is and what happened,” Geier said. “We know that poor girl was victimized but nothing specific was tied to that pair of underwear at the time.”

After interviewing the girl, Officer Homero Alvidrez and CYFD investigator Jeremy Lynn went to the school to interview the teacher. At that point, the teacher gave the underwear to the officer.

Geier said he has watched the lapel videos from the interaction with the teacher and didn’t find anything concerning, although he said it does not show how the officer handled the underwear. The city attorney said the videos will be released Thursday if the AG does not object.

Geier said the officer called an evidence technician to the school and also called a CACU detective who told him that the garment could not be used as evidence. Detectives M. O’Brien and G. Candelaria were investigating the report.

Geier said they did not ask for the girl to undergo a safe house interview because in order to do so they would have had to place her in foster care for 48 hours and there was no indication they needed to take her away from Sanchez and Stewart.

But in May 2017, BCSO conducted a forensic safe house interview with the girl and there is no mention in any reports of her being removed for 48 hours.

Although the officer was told about the bloody underwear, he had originally been called to do a welfare check because the girl and her brother had missed school that day.

“We had to meet a certain criteria before we could do that,” Geier said about removing the children from their family. “It didn’t exist. Basically we were there for truancy because she missed school.”

He also said the officers were unaware of the long history the family had with social services and law enforcement.

In March, CYFD introduced a Law Enforcement Portal where officers can access information gathered by CYFD about previous referrals and contacts with children and families.

Geier said now that officers can access the portal these types of calls might be viewed differently.

“Your mind set changes a little bit, he might have been a little more in tune,” Geier said. “He (the officer) spent a lot of time there, he was very thorough. But all he had knowledge of was she was missing school and … (Stewart and Sanchez) might not have been the best in the world in terms of taking care of her.”

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